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When the Shays-Meehan campaign finance bill came up in the House last month, the 19-hour debate included no fewer than 14 amendments, designed for the most part to weaken or kill the campaign finance reform package. Supporters of the bill fought off 11 of them.

The amendment stripped language from the bill that would have cost broadcasters millions of dollars in revenue. It passed by an overwhelming 327 to 101 margin.

The vote ended an attempt to mandate discounted rates for political advertising, and to prevent broadcasters from bumping political advertisements to other time slots when a commercial advertiser makes a better offer.

The cost of campaigns has skyrocketed over the last decades in part because of the high costs of television advertising. Some have claimed that television stations force a candidate’s campaign to pay outrageous rates so it can be assured its spots run during the evening news, as opposed to the 3 a.m. time slot when few viewers are watching.

Television broadcasters—both network and local stations—reaped a record $606 million from political advertising in 2000, a 34 percent increase over what was spent in 1996, the previous presidential election year. Those figures, prepared by Competitive Media Research, are released by the Television Bureau of Advertising, a not-for-profit trade association of the broadcast television industry. On its homepage, the bureau advises members that, “2002 promises to be a big year for political dollars.”

The broadcast industry’s ability to protect a lucrative source of revenue illustrates the raw power of its lobby, as illustrated in a September 2000 Center for Public Integrity study, “Off the Record: What Media Corporations Don’t Tell You about Their Legislative Agenda.” Not surprisingly, the 88-page, five-month study received little coverage from the networks.

In it, the Center reported from 1993 through the first six months of 2000, media corporations and their employees gave $75 million in campaign contributions to candidates for federal office and the two major political parties—much of that soft money that Shays-Meehan is attempting to ban.

In addition, from 1996 through the first half of 2000, the 50 largest media companies and four of their trade associations spent $111.3 million to lobby Congress and the executive branch of government. During that period, campaign finance reform ranked sixth among issues listed by lobbyists for media firms.

From 1996 through 1998, the National Association of Broadcasters and five media firms—ABC, CBS, A.H. Belo Corporation, Meredith Corporation and Cox Enterprises—cumulatively spent nearly $11 million to defeat a dozen campaign finance bills mandating free air time for political candidates, the study found.

The broadcasters have long opposed any campaign finance measure that interfered with their ability to make a profit.

‘Deeply appreciative’

Sen. Robert Torricelli amended the Senate reform package, the McCain-Feingold bill, to include the new broadcast rules. While the amendment passed the Senate, the House would have none of it.

The broadcast lobby expressed its gratitude for the House’s action.

“We’re deeply appreciative of the strong bipartisan vote stripping the Torricelli amendment from campaign-reform legislation that would have done serious damage to local broadcasters,” said Eddie Fritz, president of the National Association of Broadcasters.

The association has done a lot to cultivate relationships in Congress. From 1996 through 2000, the National Association of Broadcasters spent $19.4 million on lobbying in Washington, according to the study.

Rep. Gene Green, a Democrat from Texas, said he opposed the language because it “creates a new perk for candidates for federal office.”

Since 1999, Green has collected $16,000 from the two association’s political action committees, according to Political MoneyLine.

“The national broadcasters have spent $19 million since 1996 to lobby this Congress. They have spent $11 million alone to defeat no fewer than 12 campaign finance bills that would have reduced the cost of candidate advertising. This is the ultimate hypocrisy,” an outraged Torricelli said.

“The very news departments and executives that come to this Congress and complain about the state of politics in America, the lack of public confidence and the declining levels of integrity in the public discourse because of campaign fundraisers are now a principal obstacle to reform.”

Torricelli has called the lack of media coverage over the amendment a “conspiracy of silence.”

Broadcasters dismiss the allegation.

Duncan Campbell is a member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a project of the Center for Public Integrity. He is based in Britain and covers intelligence matters. In 1999, he authored a groundbreaking report on ECHELON — the high-tech intercept network run by the United States, in conjunction with the UK and other countries — and its role in intercepting global communications.

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John Dunbar worked for 15 years at the Center for Public Integrity, serving as its CEO from 2016 to 2018.